By Wes Venteicher, Chicago Tribune reporter | July 9, 2014
After Jeffery Lubejko spent a half-hour in a darkened room with glowing neon bubble tubes, a pulsing chair, music touch pads and a giant vibrating stuffed ladybug, his father said he noticed a change in his autistic son.
"All of a sudden he's a different person — he's a little more open, he's a little more excited by things he's experiencing," said Paul Lubejko, of Woodridge, after 25-year-old Jeffery emerged from a new room at the Lisle Park District designed for people with developmental disabilities.
Suburban special recreation association SEASPAR partnered with the Park District to build the 300-square-foot room, called "Wonders," said Susan Friend, the association's director. The cooperative provides special education services for a group of 11 west suburban park districts and villages reaching from Brookfield to Lisle.
Opportunities for people with disabilities to do what they want to in a non-threatening environment are rare — and possibly therapeutic, Friend said. As the number of people who are diagnosed with autism increases, the organization is looking for ways to expand recreational opportunities for them and others with disabilities, she said.
Several schools and hospitals in the Chicago area use sensory equipment to help people with disabilities regulate their emotions or stimulate their senses but the equipment is rarer in public recreational settings like a park district, said local occupational therapists and a representative from Flaghouse, the company that sold the sensory equipment to SEASPAR and other Chicago organizations.
One in six children has some type of developmental disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Autism Spectrum Disorder, which can cause a range of social, communication and behavioral issues, is growing. About one in 68 children had the disorder in 2010, up from one in 88 in 2008 and fewer in earlier years, according to the CDC. The numbers probably indicate increased prevalence as well as greater awareness of the disorder, the agency notes.
Those numbers were a powerful motivator for Lisle Park District officials, who were approached by SEASPAR leaders looking for more space, said Dan Garvy, the district's director of parks and recreation.
"To me, I think it's important that people with disabilities (are) not treated any differently," Garvy said.
The Park District, according to Garvy, provided space near its headquarters and recreation center for the sensory room and for other programming space for SEASPAR, which stands for South East Association for Special Parks and Recreation. The district also contributed to the $342,000 cost of the project, including about $56,000 for equipment for the sensory room, Friend said.
One of autism's symptoms is that it can amplify sights, sounds and smells for many who have it, said Lucia Arellano, an occupational therapist at La Rabida Children's Hospital in Chicago. The hospital has a cart filled with sensory devices that staff members push to patients' rooms.
The sound of a vacuum cleaner running or a door closing can whir or crack as if the sound were being produced right next to the autistic person's ear, she said. The disorder can also blur vision and sharpen light.
The overstimulation causes stress, which many autistic people cannot manage in the same way as those without the disorder, she said.
To explain the difference to parents, she asks them to imagine driving above the speed limit and seeing a police car. The average driver might grip the steering wheel more tightly and experience discomfort at the sight of the car but would take a deep breath and calm down after it passed. Many people with autism, however, lack the ability to regulate their emotions after experiencing distress, Arellano said. The feeling of seeing the police car might remain with them all day.
Autism can also have the opposite effect, muffling the senses, she said.
For both the overstimulated and understimulated, sensory rooms can help bring balance, she said.
All of the sensory input in the Lisle room can be calibrated to its occupants, said Rachel Pavesich, a recreation specialist for SEASPAR.
Before a recent session in the room with Lubejko and with Edward Chiang, 19, who also is autistic, Pavesich darkened the room and played music softly through a stereo. She set an aromatherapy device in the room to emit a lavender scent, choosing the flower over rosemary and cinnamon alternatives.
Chiang found his way to a chair that pulses lightly with the music's beat. He began inspecting a bunch of glowing neon fiber optic cables that hung above him. He accepted a device Pavesich offered, smiling as he learned that it allowed him to change the color of the cables and the bubble tubes across the room. He eventually got up and walked to the rectangle of light on the floor cast by an interactive projector. The device cycles through images of leaves, water, fireworks, balloons, planets and other objects that the user can manipulate with feet or hands.
The 6-foot-2, 240-pound Lubejko cycled through the objects in the room more energetically, pounding out beats on the music touch pads and singing into devices that look like microphones. The devices are, in fact, musical instruments that project beams that produce different sounds when objects are moved through the beams, Pavesich said. They are designed to be played by people with limited mobility — even a finger moved through the beam could produce sounds, she said.
Sessions in the room always last 30 minutes, a length research shows is long enough to produce a change in mood but short enough to avoid overstimulation, Pavesich said. Toward the end of the session with Chiang and Lubejko, she slowly turned up the lights and turned down the music until the room was brightly lit and the two left.